How to survive your first tattoo

There are certain things that college students do. They do these things not because they are expected to, but because at this time in their lives they just feel the need. We stay up too late, we make drunken fools of ourselves in parking lots and camping grounds, we pompously talk about poets and politicians, and we get tattoos.

These actions stem from the same basic instincts that tell a toddler to ride their Big Wheel and a middle-aged man to buy a motorcycle — they are part of the human process. But for today, let’s focus on the experience most relevant to this writer: getting your first tattoo.


1. Find the perfect design. Whether it’s something meaningful or something that’s just nice to look at, your first tattoo should be something you’re going to be happy with for more than just a few days. You should think of a tattoo as a permanent accessory: If you were going to wear one watch or bracelet every day for the rest of your life, you would want it to look nice. If you’re not an artist, you’ll need to outsource your design. I highly recommend going to, buying a few clipart books, and finding your inspiration there. The designs are original and most can be easily translated to a tattoo.

2. Find the perfect placement. No matter what, your tattoo is going to hurt. If you’re willing to make it through any amount of pain, then finding the right location for it is going to be easy. However, if you want your first to be as painless as possible, try flicking potential locations with your fingernail as hard as you can. It’s a good way to see where it would hurt the least. Also, take into account any possible weight gain in the future — a stretched pinup girl tattoo just isn’t pretty.

3. Find an artist you can trust and make an appointment. Ask friends who have had tattoos, visit local galleries, talk to artists, and find someone you’re comfortable with. Call in beforehand to make an appointment because getting a tattoo doesn’t mean you no longer need to be polite.

4. Physically and mentally prepare. I’m sure you remember the instructions your high school teachers gave you on how to prepare for a big test. Study, get a good night’s sleep, come prepared, and eat a good breakfast. The same guidelines apply here. Try to familiarize yourself physically with the tattooing process. If you will be sitting in an awkward position, stretch what muscles you need to, to make it more comfortable. It is important to eat a balanced meal before your first tattoo. Think of it like your first ride on a roller coaster — you don’t want anything weird going on in your digestive system. Be sure to bring cash, as most galleries won’t take credit or checks.


1. Focus your energy as far from the tattoo as possible. For example, if you’re getting a tattoo on your wrist, you want that entire arm to be very relaxed, so the artist doesn’t draw outside the lines. Place all of the tension that the pain is causing into your calf or foot, so you can keep that arm free from twitches.

2. Latch on to a distracting thought. If it weren’t for all the pain and excitement, tattooing would be a very boring process. There is really nothing for you to do but lie still until the process is over, so be sure to pack along something to think about. You can plan out the decor for your apartment, ponder the techniques of your favorite writer — anything to keep your mind occupied.

3. Bring something to hold onto, Lamaze style. If you don’t have a friend to hold your hand, ball up your sweater and squeeze it as hard as possible. This will be a natural reaction to the discomfort, and it will be easier if you prepare for it.


1. Keep it clean. Tattoo parlors have differing views on post-tattoo hygiene, but according to the Eleventh Street Electric Gallery in Sugarhouse, you need to keep your tattoo bandaged, free from bacteria, and covered in ointment for the first three to five days. After this, the tattoo needs to be kept out of the sun and moisturized until it is entirely healed.

2. Prepare yourself with some ammunition against people’s reactions. Try to predict how your acquaintances will respond, and think of a reply to every possible thing they could say. If they say, "But it will be there forever," reply with, "That’s the appeal." Because the bottom line is, you’ve already made this decision, and unless they’re about to pin you down and take a laser to you, there’s nothing they can do about it. Don’t let them try to make you regret it.

3. Work with your tattoo, not against it. At first, it can be difficult to dress around your new tattoo. Now, you have to start thinking of this new aspect of your appearance, one just as important as body size or skin tone. Add this new variable into your calculations when shopping for clothes.

Photo credit: Amber Drake

Leave a Reply